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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is This a Comedy?


Recently, I heard on NPR, the tail end of a brief story about two adult men whose father went missing while canoeing five years ago. The boys no doubt went through a great deal of grief but recently found out that their father is quite alive and in Panama. And, it turns out, their mother knew it the whole time. Can you say a-w-k-w-a-r-d Christmas?

Instantly I thought – wow, that’s a story! But what kind of story? Ten writers would have ten different answers. What if William Goldman wrote it? Akiva Goldsman? P.T Anderson? And that's not even wondering what a director might do. Imagine this brief premise made into a movie by the Coen Brothers. Or Frank Darabont. Or Martin Scorsese.

The questions that immediately arise are – is this a comedy? Tragedy? What era is it set in? Who is the main character – the father? Or the sons? Which son? Is it a revenge story? Is it ineluctably sad like ORDINARY PEOPLE or is it CASTAWAY meets DUDE WHERE’S MY CAR with a canoe?

These types of decisions need to be predicated largely on three things: what turns you on most as a writer about the newsclipping, what your strengths are as a writer, and – most importantly, sorry to say – the market.

How do you know what kind of box office your idea would do? Well, we know that message movies and dramas are Oscar bait. We know that quirky comedies are lower budget and will attract cool, on-the-cusp actors like Ellen Page or Jason Schwartzman, we know that middle America loves a feel-good tearjerker with a universal message about the enduring power of love and family – but what movie do YOU want to write? What will keep you up late at night?

What is the first thing you felt, Wavers, when you read that first sentence about this particular event? Did you cringe? Laugh? Feel sad? What makes you curious about this story? Do you immediately wonder what kind of father would do this? Do you feel for him - is he a hero to you, is he like Harrison Ford in THE MOSQUITO COAST? Or is he a cold deadbeat? Do you picture a story set in Panama or do you picture the boys back in England, growing up without their dad and fantasizing, like TOTO THE HERO, that dad is a dashing adventurer?

So many movie ideas are out there waiting to make it into your writing mind. But once that snippet grabs your attention, then you get to take that wonderful literary license and craft a story out of it - predicated on what turns you on as a writer. What is your initial reaction to what you just read or heard? And how will that translate to the big screen?

Is this the next Reese Witherspoon movie? Is she the duplicitous mother telling her boys she has no idea where dad is? Nah. She's too young for that role. Is it bankable to center on the mother? Or is this a vehicle for Tom Cruise to play a father who lets down his boys? Can he play age 30 to 40? What if you make that father Bill Murray? Or Tommy Lee Jones? See how the story idea morphs slightly when you insert different actors into the role? Wait until you find exactly the right road in to the story and then start outlining.

It's all right if you find something about this story funny - comedy is just coping with tragedy. And maybe that's the less obvious way in. Or not. Isn't it fun being a writer?

ShowHype: hype it up!

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7 comments:

Emily Blake said...

Actually he wasn't even in Panama the whole time. For years he was living in a spare room IN THEIR HOUSE!

It was basically an episode of Arrested Development. The boys are majorly pissed at both of their parents.

I say it's a dark comedy.

The Other Pete said...

My first thought was definitely comedy, but it would also depend on where one enters the story. For example, a drama might best take place between the moments when dad went missing and mom admitted to knowing that he was in Panama.

On the other hand, a comedy might best take place after they've found out that he's alive and they go off to look for him (which isn't necessarily covered by the news story, but seems rather inevitable to me).

After all, isn't the whole fun of being a writer the fact that we're not at all bound by the "truth," but get to play freely in the lives of others?

Jake Hollywood said...

My first thought was, dear old dad left the country so he wouldn't have to pay thousands and thousands in back taxes to the IRS...

Oh, you meant as a movie idea, didn't you?

Well, Wesley Snipes could star...

And it would be about a guy who is deeply in debt to the IRS and who accidently discovers that there is a super secret group of IRS hit men. He escapes to Panama just avoiding their latest attempt to kill him. Once in Panama he plots his revenge and recruits a perky orphaned girl named Esmeralda to help him. Wesley eventually thwarts the evil IRS rogue group and has all his IRS debt forgiven. He adopts Esmeralda and they move to California and Esmeralda wins American Idol and Wesley manages her career. It's a comedy.

steverino said...

I thought, hmmm, insurance fraud. This might work for me, too!

Jake Hollywood said...

PS: despite your extending until 8pm the contest deadline, I still missed it. I'm so lazy, maybe next time.

Jenny Wynter said...

This has really gotten me thinking about other script ideas I have (specifically ones I've been stuck on for a while now) and how putting a different spin of it just straight away opens inspiration back up!

With regards to this story, I find the most interesting thing the aftermath - i.e. what is there family life like now?!?!

Julie Gray said...

Emily - NO WAY! Wow.

TOP - you intellectual gadabout.

Jake - who loves you? Can you do it by today? And - your Wesley Snipes story vehicle - it's brill!

Steverino - reup your life insurance and buy a map of Chile!!

Jenny - me too, the aftermath is what interests me the most.